Hall's "Well of Loneliness" in the U.S., 1929

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"On behalf of a misunderstood and misjudged minority"

by Jonathan Ned Katz. Reedited by Katz from Gay American History (1976).

The Lesbian contribution to the homosexual resistance has often taken the form of fiction. Radclyffe’s Hall's The Well of Loneliness, first published in England in 1928, may be seen in a political light as an attempt, characteristic of its time, to win sympathy from heterosexuals, to change their negative attitudes toward and social persecution of Lesbians. The story of the American publication and defense of this famous English Lesbian novel is part of the history of the homosexual emancipation movement in the United States, and of reaction to it.

Una Troubridge on Hall's Decision to Write The Well of Loneliness

Radclyffe Hall's decision to write a novel that would "speak on behalf of a misunderstood and misjudged minority" is recalled by Una Troubridge, Hall's lover of many years. Troubridge's biography of Hall (or "John" as she was known among her intimates) describes the scene.

It was after the success of Adam's Breed [1926] that John came to me one day with unusual gravity and asked for my decision in a serious matter: she had long wanted to write a book on sexual inversion, a novel that would be accessible to the general public who did not have access to technical treatises. At one time she had thought of making it a 'period' book, built around an actual personality of the early nineteenth century. But her instinct had told her that in any case she must postpone such a book until her name was made; until her unusual theme would get a hearing as being the work of an established writer.

It was her absolute conviction that such a book could only be written by a sexual invert, who alone could be qualified by persona1 knowledge and experience to speak on behalf of a misunderstood and misjudged minority.

It was with this conviction that she came to me, telling me that in her view the time was ripe, and that although the publication of such a book might ,mean the shipwreck of her whole career, she was fully prepared to make any sacrifice except-the sacrifice of my peace of mind.

She pointed out that in view of our union and of all the years that we had shared a home, what affected her must also affect me and that I would be included in any condemnation. Therefore she placed the decision in my hands and would write or refrain as I should decide.

I am glad to remember that my reply was made without so much as an instant's hesitation: I told her to write what was in her heart, that so far as any effect upon myself was concerned, I was sick to death of ambiguities, and only wished to be known for what I was and to dwell with her in the palace of truth. Then and there she set to work on The Well of Loneliness.[1]

The Well of Loneliness in the U.S.A.

On August 30, 1928, the New York Times reports:


Alfred Knopf Gets American rights to “Well of Loneliness."

LONDON, Aug. 29.-"The Well of Loneliness," the book on sex matters suppressed by its publishers here…is to be published in America…

…Its publishers assert it treats skillfully a seriously growing psychological problem, but the Home Secretary apparently thought otherwise. His action in requesting its suppression has been interpreted as meaning that a book censorship has been established in England.

The situation is complicated by the fact that Compton Mackenzie… has just published "Extraordinary Women," which treats satirically the same problem which Miss Radclyffe Hall treated seriously. Critics here are now asking why one book was suppressed and the other allowed.[2]

On October 6, 1928, in a dispatch from Great Britain, the New York Times reports:

George Bernard Shaw and R. G. Wells have added the weight of their authority to protest against the attack on the freedom of literature which was made when the original ban was imposed [in England]…"I read it, and read it again," said Shaw today, "and I repeat that it ought not to have been withdrawn. It speaks of things people ought to know about…."

Miss Radclyffe Hall herself described the seizure of the books as an outrage against literature and an attack on personal freedom.[3]

On December 15, 1929, Covici-Friede of New York published the Well of Loneliness after Alfred Knopf had apparently received legal advice on the possibility of prosecution and changed his mind about bringing out the book.[4]

On January 12, 1929, the New York Times reports:


Detectives of Inspector Bolan’s staff seized yesterday afternoon more than 800 copies of Radclyffe Hall's novel, "The We11 of Loneliness," and served summonses on D.S. Friede of the Covici-Friede Publishing Corporation….The summons was issued….on complaint of John S. Sumner, secretary of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, that the book violated….the Penal Code relating to the circulation of indecent literature.

Mr. Sumner said last night that his action was taken as a result of complaints received by the society.

Calling Hall's book "a study of a woman's fight for social adjustment despite abnormality," the Times reports:

P. Covici and D. S. Friede, the publishers in America, brought out the book on Dec.15 [1928]. Since then more than 20,000 copies have been sold and the book ranks near the top or the "best sellers”. They characterized the seizure and court action as "absurd."…

The publishers announced that they would fight the court action “as far as it can be carried”.[5]

On January 23,1929, the Times reports:


Court to Read "Well of Loneliness Before Deciding Friede's Case.

Two copies of "The Well of Loneliness," by Radclyffe Hall, English novelist, were given to Magistrate Bushel in the West Side court yesterday for reading…[6]

On February 1, 1929, the Times reports:

Despite the fact that it has been defeated .at several previous sessions of the Legislature, the clean books bill, designed to prevent the s f e and distribution of obscene literature, was introduced today.[7]

On February 22,1929, the Times reports:


Magistrate Holds Publishers of Radclyffe Hall Book for Trial on Charge.
Admits Literary Merit of Work Is Not Disputed- Covici Promises Fight "to the Bitter End.

Magistrate Hyman Bushel in the Tombs Court ruled yesterday that the book "The Well of Loneliness"…is obscene and was printed and distributed in this city in violation of the penal law.[8]

Bushel's ruling sent The Well of Loneliness on to be tried for obscenity in the Court of Special Sessions.

On April 20, 1929, the Times reports:

Justice Solomon Healy and McInerney in Special Sessions declared yesterday, that the book "The Well of Loneliness,"…although dealing with "a delicate socia1 problem," was not published and sold in this city in violation of the law, against objectionable literature.

The court thereupon discharged Donald Friede, president of the Covici-Friede Corporation, American publishers of the book…

Only the day before Friede was convicted by a jury in Boston of violating the Massachusetts statute against objectionable literature for his distribution there of Theodore Dreiser's book, "An American Tragedy."…

The final court found that The Well of Loneliness was not obscene."[9]

Morris Ernst on The Well of Loneliness Case

In 1964, lawyer Morris Ernst, who had defended the American publisher of The Well of Loneliness thirty-five years earlier, describes and sums up the caw, placing it in historical and legal perspective. Ernst reprints the whole of Bushel's original finding that The Well of Loneliness, because it was too positive a, portrayal of "inversion," was obscene-a decision interesting to read today, when Hall's book appears to many Lesbians and Gay men as horribly apologetic. Ernst writes:

The censorious seldom, if ever, had placed a taboo upon an entire subject matter or theme, a whole area of thought. Usually, the attack had been against a specific technique used in presenting the theme, such as four-letter words of Anglo-Saxon origin or specific sexual descriptions. Until after the middle of the 1920’s, no court opinion had been addressed directly to the question of banning the literary expression of an entire area of human knowledge or human behavior.

Then, in both drama and the novel, the question was raised: Should the public be denied the right to read a book or see a play on the subject of female homosexuality?

Curiously enough, the test of the subject arose first on the stage. In our culture the theater has been substantially unmolested by the censors except in just the period we are now discussing, the 1920's and 1930's. Social scientists may tell us the basis of this immunity. Perhaps it is the high price of tickets, conveying an exemption that in literature is traditionally assured to expensive editions …The fact that children were less likely to be exposed may have distracted the leers of the "Comstocks" to more fertile fields of attack…

Even at the peak of Comstock's power, he had not been able to force upon theatrical producers the yoke in which he held book publishers. In 1905 he had made the attempt. His target was George Bernard Shaw's new play, Mrs. Warren's Profession, which scandalized many people because it dealt with prostitution… Cornstock announced that if anyone staged the play by "the Irish smut-dealer," he would prosecute. He did, too, but a three-man court ruled by a vote of 2 to 1 that Mrs. Warren's Profession did not fall within the scope of the New York State Obscenity Law.

However, female homosexuality was another matter. Lesbian-oriented plays such as Edouard Bourdet's The Captive in 1927 were closed down, and the resulting furor led the New York Legislature-since New York City is the center of the thespian arts-to pass a law against the performance of any drama that dealt with sexual perversion.

The law, interestingly, was directed not only against the offending play but also against the theater in which it was performed. The theater owner could lose his license and the theater be closed.

Two years later, in 1929, the courts were called upon to consider whether the same objections applied to a novel, specifically, The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall. This was a work of "restraint and literary merit," to use the words of the most horrified of the judges who presided over its fate. The prosecutor objected not to any identified episode of lesbian lovemaking but to its mere idea. In that era all discussions of sexual relations other than those between male and female were illegal in the eyes of the State. There had been a few novels touching on the love of man and man, or woman and woman. But no law had been made as to the lines of permissibility or impermissibility. Nevertheless, in The Well of Loneliness case the cultural taboo frightened many editors of our mass media. One of our most distinguished publishers [Knopf] had actually set up The Well of Loneliness in type. He was then advised by an able attorney to desist from publication because the book was, or at least might be held to be, obscene and illegal.

Donald Friede, of Covici, Friede, a courageous publisher, took over the publishing rights and dared the legal conventions. When brought into the Magistrate's Court in New York City, he not only defended his imprimatur but defended it stoutly and, what is still more important, without the least trace of apology. Unlike many other publishers before and after him, he acted as if he really believed what the Constitution guaranteed-freedom of the printed word. The case came to court without any dispute as to facts such as "Was the book published?" "Was it sold?" "Who sold it?" and all the other details that are really irrelevant in most battles over freedom for the mind of man.

The judge who first heard the case addressed himself to it in terms of that familiar text of Lord Chief Justice Cockburn in 1868: Would the book corrupt those into whose hands it was Iikely to fall?

Psychiatrists of esteem differed widely as to its possible influence or effect. Leaders of that profession were afraid to testify, some going so Ear as to indicate that the book might conceivably corrupt our culture, some suggesting that it might turn our nation into an "Isle of Lesbos." Others with great sobriety of thought replied with questions; Do we favor forcing this problem or issue or situation into dirty, secret underground avenues for future discussion? If there be a problem, since sexual relations between men and women are deemed to be preferable, do we still believe that man has his best chance of finding a wise solution by open debate in the marketplace of thought, or by suppression of all writings on the subject? Do we sweep the entire problem under the bed?

When the case came before Judge Hyman Bushel sitting without a jury in the Magistrate's Court of New York City, he wrote a lengthy opinion. For those who have not read the book itself and who may be interested in techniques of testing for the obscene, Judge Bushel's view is set forth at length to show what he read in and out f the volume. He does point out that there are no unclean words, that the book is well written and carefully constructed as a piece of fiction, He decides, however, that the book should be banned because the "depraved" relationships are idealized and extolled and, what bothers him most, because lesbian love and lesbian lovers are not held up to shame. We assume that the good judge might have concluded that the book was legal if Radclyffe Hall, the author, had had the characters apologetic for what they did to life and what life did to them.

This opinion should be read with care. The judge was offended, shocked, and discouraged. He will not object if we add that he was not a man who had lived in an ivory tower. He was married and he had grown up in the hurly-burly of a big city. But we must be gentle with him, for in 1929 few women in our land had ever heard the word "lesbian." If the mass media of that era referred at all to such a way of life, it was only by indirection or with euphemisms. It was understandable that Judge Bushel might conclude that the volume was offensive, according to his own likes.

People v. Friede

City Magistrate's Court of New York City (1929)

BUSHEL, City Magistrate. Friede and another person are charged with having violated the Mew York Penal Law by their possession and sale of a book entitled "The Well of Loneliness." Evidence proving possession and sale of the book by Friede had been introduced and is not controverted by him.

This court in a prosecution of this character is not the trier of the fact. Its judicial province is limited to a determination of the question as to whether as matter of law it can be said that the book which forms the basis of the charge in question is not violative of the statute. The evidence before me, however, is the same as that which would be presented to the tribunal vested with the power of deciding the facts as well as the law.

An "Unnatural" Crew

The book here involved is a novel dealing with the childhood and early womanhood of a female invert. In broad outline the story shows how these unnatural tendencies manifested themselves from early childhood; the queer attraction of the child to the maid in the household, her affairs with one Angela Crossby, a normally sexed, but unhappily married, woman, causing further dissension between the latter and her husband, her jealousy of another man who later debauched this married woman, and her despair, in being supplanted by him in Angela's affections, are vividly portrayed. The book culminates with an extended elaboration upon her intimate relations with a normal young girl, who becomes a helpless subject of her perverted influence and passion, and pictures the struggle for this girl's affections between this invert and a man from whose normal advances she herself had previously recoiled, because of her own perverted nature. Her sex experiences are set forth in some detail and also her visits to various resorts frequented by male and female inverts.

Literary Merit-Yes

The author has treated these incidents not without some restraint; nor is it disputed that the book has literary merit. To quote the people's brief: "It is a well-written, carefully constructed piece of fiction, and contains no unclean words." Yet the narrative does not veer from its central theme, and the emotional and literary setting in which they are found give the incidents described therein great force and poignancy. The unnatural and depraved relationships portrayed are sought to be idealized and extolled. The characters in the book who indulge in these vices are described in attractive terms, and it is maintained throughout that they be accepted on the same plane as persons normally constituted, and that their perverse and inverted love is as worthy as the affection between normal beings and should be considered just as sacred by society.

Moral Value-No

The book can have no moral, value, since it seeks to justify the right of a pervert to prey upon normal members of a community, and to uphold such relationship as noble and lofty: Although it pleads for tolerance on the part of society of those possessed o[ and inflicted with perverted traits and tendencies, it does not argue for repression or moderation of insidious impulses. An idea of the moral tone which the book assumes may be gained from the attitude 'taken by its principal character towards her mother, pictured as a hard, cruel, and pitiless woman, because of the abhorrence she displays to unnatural lust, and to whom, because of that reaction, the former says: "But what I will never forgive is your daring to try and make me ashamed of my love. I'm not ashamed of it; there's no shame in me."

The theme of the novel is not only antisocial and offensive to public morals and decency, but the method in which it is developed, in its highly emotional way attracting and focusing attention upon perverted ideas and unnatural vices, and seeking to justify and idealize them, is strongly calculated to corrupt and debase those members of the community who would be susceptible to its immoral influence.

Justice Cockburn Rides Again

Although the book in evidence is prefaced by a laudatory commentary by Havelock Ellis, yet it is he who, in his scientific treatise on the subject, states: "We are bound to protect the helpless members of society against the invert." The court is charged with that precise duty here. The test of an obscene book laid down in Regina v. Hicklin is "whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and who might come into contact with it." Although not sole and exclusive, this test is one which has been frequently applied. It may be accepted as a basis for judicial decision here.

Its application and, soundness are assailed by learned counsel for Friede, who argue that it seeks to gauge the mental and moral capacity of the community by that of its dullest-witted and most fallible members. This contention overlooks the fact that those who are subject to perverted influences, and in whom that abnormality may be called into, activity, and who might be aroused to lustful and lecherous practices are not limited to the young and immature, the moron, the mentally weak, or the intellectually impoverished, but may be found among those of mature age and of high intellectual development and professional attainment.

Men may differ in their conceptions as to the propriety of placing any restrictions upon a literary work or absolute freedom of expression and interchange of ideas. This conflict between liberty and restraint is not new to the law. However, the Legislature has spoken on that subject in the enactment of the law in question. Even if the courts were not (as a matter of fact they are) in accord with the public policy it declares, they would not be free to disregard it, because it may be founded upon conceptions of morality with which they disagree. Moreover, the legislature has not sought to set up a literary censorship, or attempted to confine thought and discussion in a strait jacket of inflexible legal definition, but has imposed upon the courts the duty of protecting the weaker members of society from corrupt, depraving, and lecherous influences, .although exerted through the guise aid medium of literature, drama or art. The public policy so declared was reaffirmed by the Legislature by its recent amendment to the Penal Law, making it a misdemeanor to prepare, advertise, or present any drama, play, etc., dealing with the subject of sex degeneracy or sex perversion.

Defendants' counsel urge that the book is to be judged by the mores of the day. The community, through this recent legislation, has evinced a public policy even more hostile to the presentation and circulation of matter treating of sexual depravity. The argument, therefore, that the mores have so changed as to fully justify the distribution of a book exalting sex perversion is without force…

The defendants' brief refers the court to eminent men of letters, critics, artists, and publishers who have praised "The Well of Loneliness." Were the issue before the court the book's value from a literary standpoint, the opinions of those mentioned might, of course, carry great weight. However, the book's literary merits are not challenged, and the court may wt conjecture as to the loss that its condemnation may entail to our general literature, when it is plainly subversive of public morals and public decency, which the statute is designed to safeguard. Moreover, it has been held that the opinions of experts are inadmissible.

I am convinced that "The Well of Loneliness" tends to debauch public morals, that its subject-matter is offensive to public decency, and that it is calculated to deprave and corrupt minds open to its immoral influences and who might come in contact with it, and applying the rules and recognized standards of interpretation as laid down by our courts, I refuse to hold as matter of law that the book in question is not violative of the statute. Accordingly, and under the stipulation entered into in this case, that the testimony taken upon the summons shall be the testimony taken upon the complaint, if one is ordered, I hereby order a complaint against these defendants.

Friede carried on the fight. On April 19, 1929, a three-man appellate court, after reading the opinion of the lower court and after reading the book, unanimously came to a contrary opinion and held that the book was not obscene in a very brief decision. The difference of opinions of the lower and appellate jurists in this case shows how subjective the legal test for obscenity was at that time-and still is. The judicial mind reviewing this particular book came out 3 to 1 in its find verdict, with no facts in dispute--the same book, the same words, the same basic theme…

The reversal of Donald Friede's conviction in The Well of Loneliness case was the victory of three judges over their lower brother--a timely imposition of perhaps more sophisticated taste and jurisprudence in order to free an important book.

The great significance of The Well of Loneliness case is that since the book was allowed open circulation no theme, as a theme, has been banned by our courts. The censors have had to find other reasons for suppressing the written word-and of course they have not run out of pretexts.[10]

Henry Gerber on The Well of Loneliness

In 1934, five years after the American publication of The Well of Loneliness, Henry Gerber, the founder of the first documented homosexual emancipation organization in the United States (search for Gerber), reviews Radclyffe Hall's novel in an obscure mimeographed periodical. Gerber finds, that Hall's negative portrayal of Lesbianism makes The Well "ideal anti-homosexual propaganda." just the opposite of judge Bushel's opinion that the novel's positive image of Lesbianism makes the book pro-homosexual and immoral. Gerber writes:

That the appearance of The Well of Loneliness should have brought about a storm of protest and subsequent suppression of the book in England, was to be foreseen, for England is perhaps the most hypocritical country in matters of sex. The same book appeared soon afterwards, published by an enterprising New York firm, which successfully convinced the American guardians of morality that inasmuch as this book is really a strong indictment of homosexuality, it is as antihomosexual propaganda, really a "moral" book.

The volume by Miss Radclyfle Hall will perhaps go down in literary history as the classical homosexual novel. It is frankly the autobiography of a Lesbian. She is brought up as a boy and develops into a thorough homosexual. (This theory of acquired homosexuality, of course, is extremely silly. If it were true, in a family of six children brought up in an exactly alike environment, all six would have to become homosexual. This never happens and proves that there must be at least a predisposition to homosexuality--probably endocrinally--in the individual developing this trait.)

By reason of falling into two vital errors in her conduct of life, the heroine goes through highly morbid spasms of self-pity. She tries to win the sympathy of ostracizing so called "normal" society, and falls in love with a heterosexual girl, who is snatched from her arms by a male competitor in love. Had she joined her own circle, which is large in every metropolitan city and ostracized in turn the self-righteous society who despised her, not for personal reasons, but for the sheer stupidity of traditional thinking and acting, and had she chosen a homosexual girl as her partner, there would have been no morbid story; it would not have been such ideal anti-homosexual propaganda, and the publisher would have rejected the manuscript, well aware of the fact that he could be sent to jail for saying anything in favor of homosexuals."[11]


  1. Una [Vincenzo], lady Troubridge, The Life of Radclyffe Hall (N.Y.:Citadel, 1963;photo reprint, N.Y.:Arno, 1975)p. 81-82.
  2. New York Times, Aug. 30, 1928, p. 36, col. 2.
  3. New York Times, Oct. 6, 1928, p. 6, col. 4.
  4. Vera Mary Brittain, Radclyffe Hall: A Case of Obscenity? (London: Femina, 1968), p. 140.
  5. New York Times, Jan. 12, 1929, p. 3, col. 6.
  6. New York Times, Jan. 23, 1929, p. 7, col. 1.
  7. New York Times, Feb. I, 1929, p. 10, col. 2.
  8. New York Times, Feb. 22, 1929, p. 11, col. 1.
  9. New York Times, April 20, 1929, p. 20, col. 2.
  10. Morris L. Ernst and Man U. Schwartz, Censorship: The Search for the Obscene (N.Y.: Macmillian, 1964), p. 71-79.
  11. Henry Gerber, "Recent Homosexual Literature," Chanticleer (N.Y.), vol. 1, no.2 (Feb. 1934), p, 4.

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Copyright (c) 2008 by Jonathan Ned Katz. All rights reserved.

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